First State Watch Factory / 1ГЧЗ им Кирова

In 1927, in an effort to combat a shortage of timepieces, and to contribute to overall industrial growth as part of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), the Soviet government made a decision to establish and develop an indigenous, State-owned watch industry. On December 21st, 1927, the Council of Labor and Defense passed a resolution entitled “About How to Organize Watch Production in the USSR”. The goal was for the manufacture of watches that were accurate, reliable, and not inferior to those in Switzerland or the USA. With this in mind, the head of State Trust of Precision Mechanics (Gostrest Tochmeh), Andrey Bodrov, sent selected engineers abroad to report on foreign production.

In October of 1928, the management team of Gostrest Tochmeh had established an 11-man commission to look into purchasing watchmaking equipment from Europe or America in an effort to expedite the launch of the industry. The plan was to visit Germany, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland. But ultimately, none of the European watch companies agreed to cooperate, likely due to mistrust of the communist regime.

The commission was then sent to America, where they visited 21 precision engineering plants, including eight watch factories. The commission was impressed, noting that the American production method was almost fully-automated. With help from Amtorg Trading Corporation, which had located the factories and planned the US visit, the Soviets identified two bankrupt clock manufacturers that were for sale: the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company of Canton, Ohio, and the Ansonia Clock Company of Brooklyn, New York. Both companies were using outdated watchmaking technology – unpopular at the time when Americans demanded the latest and greatest – and ultimately met their demise at the height of the Great Depression.

On April 26th, 1929, two purchase contracts were signed.  The first was for factory equipment ($325,000), and the second for spare parts and incomplete timepieces ($125,000). Three Soviet specialists traveled to the Dueber-Hampted factory in Canton, Ohio to pack up all the manufacturing equipment, leftover watch movements, and spare parts to ship back to Russia. In April, 1930, a steamboat loaded with 28 freight cars worth of machinery and parts departed Canton en route to Moscow. In addition, 23 former Dueber-Hampden employees from Ohio – watchmakers, engravers, and various other technicians – left Canton on February 25, 1930 to help establish the new factory. These watchmakers had lost their jobs when the company went bankrupt, but were rehired by the Soviets on a one-year contract to help train the Russian workers in the art of watchmaking.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, construction on the First State Watch Factory was started as a ‘top-priority’ project. Work commenced in February of 1930 and finished in June of the same year. Installation of the primary equipment was finished by September 15, 1930, and on October 1st, “the day of the hammer”, work started at the plant. From this date, and with the help of the American experts, the watch factory was fully operational. By November 7th, the first 50 pocket watches had been completed. The watch design chosen was designated the Type-1, also known as К-43 (К refers to Карман, or “pocket”, and 43 refers to the diameter of the movement in millimetres). This was based on the Hampden Size 16 caliber and was available in both 7-jewel and 15-jewel models. Additional Types 2, 3, and 4 were also based on Hampden designs, but these were relatively short-lived and produced in very limited quantities. These first movements bore striking resemblance to their Hampden origins; it would be two more years before the aesthetics of the timepieces became purely Soviet.

The first few months were rough. There was a shortage of skilled laborers, machines were breaking down often, and regular rules were not yet established. But within two years, things rapidly improved. A repair shop was established to service broken machines, high-quality watchmaking training improved the skill of young workers, and over 3,000 “rules of operation” were created. By December of 1931, factory projections were exceeded by 135%.

The American reported that they were well cared-for and all their expenses met. They were given pay even when too ill to work, as well as free medical treatment, neither of which they enjoyed back at home in Canton. Each worker received roughly $4,650 for the year (over $80,000 in today’s money) and was provided with a cook and a waiter. The Americans were said to have been very impressed by the speed at which the Russians picked up the watchmaking skills, especially the women. Aside from English, German was the most common bridge language. At the end of the one-year contract, the Soviets welcomed the Americans to stay, but all ended up returning to the US.

On December 16, 1935, a decree was signed awarding the First State Watch Factory the name of Kirov (Кирова). Sergei Kirov was a prominent early Bolshevik leader in the USSR, rising through the ranks to become the party head in Leningrad. He was viewed as an oppositional leader to the extreme policies of Stalin, and on December 1st, 1934, he was shot and killed. The name change marked a critical time in the First State Watch Factory history, when watch production increased to 450,000 pieces, production of special car and airplane clocks began, and watches began being perceived as a status symbol in the government, in the military, and among ordinary citizens. By 1936, the number of machining tools had increase by 1.5 times.

From 1935 to 1941, 2.7 million Type-1 pocket and wristwatches were produced at the First State Watch Factory. These are different from those produced at the Second Watch Factory in several ways: the top of the balance cock is silver in color, with face-up screws; the click is considerably smaller; the crown and barrel wheels are usually plain (sometimes black); and the pallet fork bridge has two screws.

 

As a result of the escalating military situation, on October 22, 1941, work was stopped at the First State Watch Factory. A mandate ordered the evacuation of the factory to Zlatoust, a city east of the Ural mountains some 1600 kilometers from Moscow. This was not unusual; as a result of advancing German troops, some 1500 factories were relocated, in over 1800 trains, to safety behind the Urals. By November 28, 1941, the complete evacuation of the First State Watch Factory was underway. In total some 1260 pieces of equipment were moved, including machinery, materials, assets, and inventory. Together with the equipment, 296 watchmakers and technicians were evacuated to Zlatoust. During the war years, the evacuated plant would be known as Factory 845.

In 1943, when the Soviets were on the offensive, some equipment was transferred back to Moscow from Zlatoust. Shortly thereafter, the production line was reinstated and the factory was reestablished. However, the First State Watch Factory would never resume Type-1 production. Instead, in the mid-1940s, attention was turned to wristwatch production. Engineers were working on the development of a diminutive wristwatch design based on the LIP caliber R-26, a former endeavour dating back to 1936 that was disrupted by the war effort. By the first quarter of 1946, in partnership with Penza Watch Factory, the First State Watch Factory had already begun production of the Pobeda. In the spring of 1947, at the height of these advances, the factory name was changed to First Moscow Watch Factory

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)

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